Thursday, January 31, 2013

Let's crowdsource the Style Manual for government

The Australian Government Style Manual:
For Authors, Editors and Printers, 6th Edition
image via Wiley Press
When I joined the Australian Public Service in 2006, one of the first manuals I was made aware of was the Style Manual: For Authors, Editors and Printers.

The Style Manual was the bible for communications professionals and senior executives in the APS, containing detailed advice on how to plan, design, write, structure, edit and publish content that met the standards expected of Australia's Government.

The Style Manual was, for the most part, practical; clearly and concisely written while covering a vast range of material in a relatively short 550 pages.

From my perspective the Manual only had one major flaw - it was a print-only publication with a price tag for purchase ($44.95).

What this meant, in practice, was that agencies never had enough Manuals to go around.

While Communications team always had quite a few, and many senior executives had their own copies, many people across departments, who wrote policy, program documents, business cases and other materials for a living, didn't have ready and ongoing access to a Style Manual.

Sure the price wasn't that much (and many people bought their own), however when an agency has hundreds or thousands of staff who could benefit from access to the Style Manual, the cost quickly added up.

Another issue caused by the print-only nature of the Style Manual was the speed at which it updated.

At the time I joined the public service the latest edition, the 6th, was four years old. It was already out-of-date due to rapid changes in web communications. Now the 6th Edition of the Style Manual is over ten years old, it is far out of touch with modern writing approaches and channels.

The first Style Manual was published in 1966 and, on average, editions had been published every six years. That may have been fine in the 'old days' when there were three mass media and before desktop computers and the internet, however it fails to meet the speed of change today.

So I was please earlier this week to see that the Australian Government was going to be going to market to update the Style Manual. However, when I looked into what was initially proposed I was concerned:

The Department of Finance and Deregulation (Finance) is preparing for an approach to market in mid 2013 seeking to form a joint arrangement with a suitably qualified provider to develop, publish and distribute the 7th edition of the Style manual for authors, editors and printers (Style manual). 
Phase 1 of the project involves consulting with industry in order to explore and better understand potential business models under which the 7th edition could be produced, published and distributed. Finance is particularly interested in business models where the provider recovers development costs through collecting revenue from selling the Style manual, rather than Finance providing the capital to develop the 7th edition....
Government News summed up the situation well in their article, Paywall to surround official government Style guide.

I believe it is time for a rethink of how the Style Manual is constructed, managed and distributed, matching the modern technologies we now have.

Here's my proposal.

Let's crowdsource the Style Manual

The principles under which the government Style Manual should operate, in my view, are as follows.

The Style Manual should be:
  • developed by the people who most understand it and need it - development of the new edition should involve writing and media experts, but also should involve the people who use these mediums for government every day, the users of the current 6th Edition Style Manual. Many of these people have suggestions for improvements and ideas for extensions to the Manual which aren't commonly captured or respected in a centrally managed updating process.
  • readily available - to all government officials and to all organisations and individuals who engage or contract with government on the platform and in the place of their choosing.
  • continually current - a 'living document', updated on an ongoing basis to reflect changing communication channels and language usage.
  • relevant - a communal document, with communications specialists (particularly those in government who rely on it) able to participate in its development and ongoing updating so that it addresses their needs and reflects best practice, prompting engagement and use.
  • accessible - meeting the WCAG 2.0 AA accessibility standards
  • useful - providing examples, templates and allowing people to pose challenges and respond with advice and ideas in an active communal way.
  • open and transparent - the style guide should support and reinforce the government's stated open government agenda.
On this basis, I see the 'native' format being a cross between a wiki and an online community, a living Style Manual where people can search for and reference all the content, plus additional examples and templates that cannot be delivered effectively in a print publication.

Every piece of guidance in the Style Manual would support a discussion, with the community of public servants able to ask questions, debate points of style and offer improvements, which could be implemented through a managed consensus and voting approach.

To support people who needed an offline Manual, or who prefer a printed version, regular (perhaps annual) print versions could be released from the website for departments and other organisations to print (at their own cost or via the site) as books or distribute as ebooks across mobile platforms.

If a revenue model is critical, perhaps the site can charge government departments - not individuals - an annual subscription fee based on their headcount. With around 260,000 public servants, a charge of $2 per head would be more than sufficient to cover the running costs of the site, meaning a large agency with 20,000 staff would pay only $40,000 for an annual subscription for all staff, equaivalent to buying 800 copies of the current 6th Edition Style Manual book (one book per 25 people), while a smaller 500 person agency would pay only $1,000 per year.

This subscription fee would allow full access to the online Style Manual and the right to print as many copies as they chose (at their own cost), as well as including full access to enewsletters and the ability to both suggest edits to the guide and to participate in the community, asking and answering questions related to 'gray' areas in style.

Outside organisations may be able to pay for this access as well, at a higher rate.

In summary, we need a government Style Manual. It provides a basis for standardisation of language and common understanding within and without government.

It needs to always be current and accessible, to engage and support the community by going beyond what a book or website can do by fostering a community of communicators within government - whether they use paper, video, voice or the web as their mediums for communication.

We have the technology today to do this in a cost-effective and managed way. It doesn't require a book publisher or distributor to achieve this goal. In fact these companies are often the worst placed to deliver the outcome as they are tied to legacy investments.

Finally, we need the Style Guide to demonstrate and support the government's open government agenda - something a book publisher, seeking profits, would be disinclined to do.


  1. Interesting stuff. I'm all for updating the Style Manual. However, if everyone throws in their two bob's worth, it will never get published. Also, having a wiki system might remove the rigidity from the system. If the rules are constantly changing, there won't be a guide for anyone to follow.

  2. Because of the forum, I guess its appropriate to assume that the Style Manual is used predominantly by people in the public services (as was its original intention). However, it's become (the outdated) authority for most publishers. (Even if they do have their own in-house style guides, they are mostly based on the sixth edition of the Style Manual. Just sayin'.

  3. Intriguing stuff. I'm for redesigning the Style Manual. In any case, if every living soul tosses in their two sway's worth, it will never get distributed. Additionally, having a wiki framework may evacuate the inflexibility from the framework. Assuming that the standards are continually modifying, there won't be an aide for anybody to take after.

  4. Has anyone had any further thoughts on this- has this been persued by anyone?



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